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Last updated:13 May 2016

Socialist Sunday Schools

Socialist Sunday Schools in Great Britain arose in response to a widespread feeling as to the inadequacy of the orthodox Sunday Schools as a training ground for the children of Socialists and of the need for some organised and systematic method of presenting the Socialist point of view and of teaching the ideals and principles of Socialism to the children, youths and maidens in the country. The main purpose was to supply the Socialist movement with fearless, capable and conscientious thinkers.

Mrs Mary Gray, a member of the Social Democratic Federation, who ran a soup kitchen for the children of the dock strike, initiated the Socialist Sunday School movement in 1892. Her aim, on realising they had little or no education, was to influence and educate them and make them aware of their socialist responsibilities and provide what was lacking in their day schools. She started the first Sunday with only one other besides her own two children but twenty years later there were approximately 120 schools throughout the country, 20 of them being in London itself.

Socialist Sunday School birthday wishes card, 1945

Birthday card

A national movement, the National Council of British Socialist Sunday Schools Union, formed in 1909, however, traces its origin to a school opened in Glasgow by Caroline Martyn and Archie McArthur. It was established as a protest against, and an alternative to, the perceived middle-class bias and assumptions of the regular churches. Its aims were to help the schools in their teaching of Socialism. The schools were grouped in District Unions and for the first ten years were affiliated to the Council. However in 1920 the Constitution was amended to allow direct school affiliation which meant there was wide representation at the Annual Conference. The manual is a very enlightening book into the teachings of the Sunday Schools and was prepared chiefly for the use of teachers. It contains specimen lessons and technique help to the teachers together with suggested reading for Socialist Education.

It was the view that public education should be secular and Socialist Sunday Schools were for purely educational bodies and therefore the hymns did not have theological tendencies or the Christian dogma which was preached in religious churches of the day. They worked in close harmony with the Labour Movement and were concerned with the spiritual and social objective of the human race with regard to daily life and conduct.

Header from The Young Socialist published by the National Council of British Sunday SchoolsThe Young Socialist was a monthly periodical published by the National Council and was first issued in Glasgow in 1901. In the September 1910 edition the editor wrote that the true socialist, whatever, if any, denomination he belonged to, wanted fellowship, a kingdom of love and happiness, not hell. The Socialist Sunday Schools were organised with this theory as a basis and although there was no formulated set of rules to be followed there were three main guidelines of ethics, morality, brotherly love and social responsibility.

  1. That morality is the fulfilment of one's duty to one's neighbour.
  2. That the present social system is devoid of the elements of love or justice, since, as an organisation, it ignores the claims of the weak and distressed, and that is, therefore, immoral;
  3. That society can be reorganised on a basis of love and justice, and that it is every man's duty to use all available social forces in bringing about that reorganisation.'

There were also 'ten commandments' to be followed which were printed in some of the editions of the hymn book.

  1. Love your schoolfellows, who will be your fellow workmen in life.The socialist commandments
  2. Love learning, which is the food of the mind; be as grateful to your teacher as to your parents.
  3. Make every day holy by good and useful deeds and kindly actions.
  4. Honour good men, be courteous to all men, bow down to none.
  5. Do not hate or speak evil of anyone. Do not be revengeful but stand up for your right and resist oppression.
  6. Do not be cowardly. Be a friend to the weak and love justice.
  7. Remember that all good things of the earth are produced by labour. Whoever enjoys them without working for them is stealing the bread of the workers.
  8. Observe and think in order to discover the truth. Do not believe what is contrary to reason and never deceive yourself or others.
  9. Do not think that he who loves his own country must hate and despise other nations, or wish for war, which is a remnant of barbarism.
  10. Look forward to the day when all men and women will be free citizens of one fatherland and live together as brothers and sisters in peace and righteousness.

The Young Socialist printed these in verse form which may have appealed to the young pupils of the day.

1. Always love your schoolmates
Make happy those in sorrow
The children of today will be
The citizens of tomorrow.

2. To parents and to teachers
Be grateful and be kind
For we should all love learning
(Which nourishes the mind).

3. Let every day be holy
By doing some good deed;
To all do kindly actions
Whatever be their creed.

4. Be just and fair to all men,
Bow down or worship none.
Judge man by what he tries to do,
Or has already done.

5. Hate not, and speak no evil,
Stand up for what is right,
And do not be revengeful,
But 'gainst oppression fight.

6. Try not to be a coward,
But always help the weak,
Whatever path of life you're in.
For love and justice seek.

7. All good things gathered from the earth,
By toil of hand and brain,
Instead of going to the few,
The workers should retain.

8. Speak (the) truth at all times,
And try not to deceive,
And what opposes reason
We ought not to believe.

9. Love all the races of mankind,
Abolish war and strife;
That we may reach the higher plains
Of our intended life.

10. Look forward to the day when men
And women will be free;
As brothers and as sisters live
In peace and unity.

The Socialist Sunday Schools along with the Labour Church were impeded by a lack of their own premises and met objections to hiring of suitable halls to the extent that in 1907 London County Council evicted five branches out of hired school buildings. A massive demonstration in Trafalgar Square ensued addressed by Margaret McMillan who, with her sister, was a Christian Socialist and campaigned for better education and health for poor children. A few years later the Springburn branch met for many years in the Labour Party's Unity Hall in Ayr Street for the same reason. Later in 1926 Fulham Council refused permission on Sundays because it was of a 'non-theological' character.

It was becoming apparent that the reason that the Socialist Sunday Schools were encountering so much opposition was because they were 'being seen as subversive and as poisoning the minds of the young people of the country with their political and anti-religious doctrines and teachings' and there were those who tried to discredit the Schools by accusations of blasphemy and revolutionary teachings.

The Socialist Sunday School hymn book, published by the National Council of Socialist Sunday Schools (1917)

Hymn book

The Working Class Movement  Library holds a selection of Socialist Sunday School Hymn, Tune or Song Books ranging from 1907 to 1932. The earliest one held was published in March 1907 for Yorkshire Socialist Sunday School and consists of words only and suggests the sources of the tunes are from Labour Church Hymn Book, Hymns of modern thought, Ethical hymn book, Clarion song book, Huddersfield anniversary sheets and Merlin Cantata.

Another publication in the same year in August was from Glasgow and District and has tonic sol-fa accompaniment (opens in a new window). The holding of books varies from those with words only, tonic sol-fa and staff music accompaniment and also in the contents which remained the same for some time. In 1918 however an abridged version was published due to the scarcity of paper and printing during World War One but there was a nucleus of the same hymns.

The Socialist Sunday School, like religious denominations, had its own special services for naming children, marriage and funerals. Although the movement was secular, regulations had to be adhered to, as in the marriage service a registrar was obligatory to make the union legally binding.

It could be said that the Sunday Schools were seen as the main recruiting grounds for contemporary socialists organisations and for children developed this way it would be a natural progression along that path in their early adult life. It is quite probable that some early day Labour activists came along this path. Hannah Mitchell helped to start the Labour Church and Sunday School in Ashton-under-Lyne, which had similar aims and roles, and was affiliated to the Socialist Sunday Schools, where she came in contact with Keir Hardie, Ramsey MacDonald and Tom Fox, who later on became first Labour Lord Mayor of Manchester. The effects of World War One and later, the split in the Labour Party in 1931, led to the decline in the Socialist Sunday Schools. The Labour Clubs denied the Schools the use of the rooms after the split of the Independent Labour Party.

Click here to read about one of the Library's treasures - a Socialist Sunday School banner rescued from a basenent in Bradford...


Resources about Socialist Sunday Schools in the library collection

Socialist Sunday Schools archive collection (ORG/SSS)

  • Record of activities for the Socialist Sunday School movement in Lancashire and Cheshire, compiled by Tom Webb
  • Handwritten biographical details of Tom Webb
  • Birthday wishes certificate for Mrs Webb (25 Aug 1945)
  • Certificate for Thomas Robert Webb (26 May 1946)
  • National Council of British Socialist Sunday Schools - catalogue of minutes, reports, letters and other material of the Socialist Sunday Schools and later the Socialist Fellowship (1894-1971) [list of items presented to the People's History Museum]
  • Social precepts and declaration
  • Socialist Commandments - postcard produced by Bolton Socialist Club
  • Outline of lessons for children, 8-12
  • Circular letter from Jack Allam, regarding the Aims and Objectives pamphlet
  • Postcard showing Archie McArthur on his 72nd Birthday (29 Nov 1930)

FJ Gould, Sunday schools: how to form and conduct them in connection with socialist churches, ethical societies, etc. (1910) - Shelfmark: AG Socialist Sunday Schools Box 1

National Council of British Socialist Sunday School Unions, Methods of procedure in socialist Sunday schools (no date) - Shelfmark: AG Socialist Sunday Schools Box 1

George Whitehead, Education in socialist Sunday schools: a contribution (no date) - Shelfmark: AG Socialist Sunday Schools Box 1

National Council of British Socialist Sunday Schools, Socialist Sunday Schools: a manual (ca. 1923) - Shelfmark: AG Socialist Sunday Schools Box 1

National Council of British Socialist Sunday Schools, Socialist Sunday Schools: aims, objects and organisation (no date) - Shelfmark: AG Socialist Sunday Schools Box 1

National Union of Conservative and Unionist Associations, Socialist and other Sunday Schools (1925) - Shelfmark: AG Socialist Sunday Schools Box 1

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